Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates and are the most popular for visitors. They’re about an hour and a half away from each other, which makes traveling between them a breeze.
A local bus ride between the two will cost 25 dirham one-way ($7), while a taxi ride is more like 220 ($60).
Let’s say you have a few days to explore the area—should you stay in Abu Dhabi, or Dubai?
If you want to hold this falcon, you’ve got to go to Abu Dhabi!
Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the UAE and the seat of the government. It’s more quiet and conservative than flashy Dubai, but that’s exactly why I loved it. When you close your eyes amid the tall skyscrapers of Dubai, you could be in any overdeveloped city. But when you’re in Abu Dhabi, you know you’re in Abu Dhabi.
It’s just much more quiet and cultural. It feels a tad more authentic, and dare say it, middle-eastern.
That being said, if you’re looking for nightlife and activities, you won’t find much here. Despite a large expat population full of those who work mostly with the government in some way, there just isn’t much to do when the sun goes down.
There are a few great things to see and do during the day in Abu Dhabi however:
- Grand Mosque: You can’t miss a visit to this incredible architectural wonder. It’s arguably one of the most incredible mosques I’ve seen, ever, and I’ve been to hundreds of mosques and churches. Entrance is free, you’ll be given a full-length hooded gown to cover up and you’ll need to cover all of your hair with it. If you don’t want to put your hair in it, bring your own scarf. Pro-tip: come just before sunset and you’ll be rewarded with an ever-changing scene. As the lights come on from day to night the domes transform into a gorgeous blue.
- Falcon Hospital: The only place in the world that has a hospital catering exclusively to falcons and your visit here includes the opportunity to hold one, and if you’re lucky, feed one. It’s fascinating to learn about the importance falcons play in the culture here. So much so that locals routinely come by and drop their falcons off at the hospital so that they can have their nails trimmed and clipped, or have an operation if need be. The hospital also does much to fund education and conservation of these great birds.
- Emirates Palace: Stop in and try their famous cappuccino, topped (of course) with gold flakes. The drink will set you back 60 dirham ($16), and tastes like a regular old cappuccino, but it’s fancy and fun and you know you want to snap that photo for Instagram like I did. 😉 I’d skip out next time on the camel burger, also topped with gold, which I grabbed only because I was starving. If you feel like staying the night, the suites here start at around $600/night.
- Ferrari World: Car enthusiasts should stop by the Ferrari World, home to an exclusive collection of vintage and novelty cars, which also doubles as a theme park (Ferrari-themed, of course) with the fastest rollercoaster in the world and the largest rollercoaster loop. I didn’t make my way here, but it’s a top attraction for the area.
- Corniche: A stretch of sandy beaches and parks, the Corniche is a popular hang out spot for locals and beach-goers.
Abu Dhabi is more quiet, conservative and cultural than Dubai. It’s also more affordable—hotels and taxis both cost much less here than they do in Dubai. If you’re hoping for nightlife, you won’t find it here. If that’s not important to you (it’s not to me), than you’ll enjoy a nice quiet stay here.
Our Favorite Hotels In Abu Dhabi
- Sofitel Abu Dhabi Cornice: Set right near the water, this gorgeous hotel is top-notch with all of the amenities you’d find in an upscale hotel. I loved their pool bar, Chillo-s, and their pool. Rooms run around $150/night which is great for what you get.
- Royal Rose Hotel: For budget-minded travelers, the Royal Rose Hotel gets top marks. The decor here is French, with just a touch of over-the-top gold (this is the UAE after all) but it’s right in the middle of the city, close to the corniche, and rooms start at around $77.
- Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel: If you want to experience real UAE luxury, book a stay in the Jumeirah. With access to a private beach and attentive staff catering to your every need, you can really relax and enjoy all that the property offers. Highly recommend for solo travelers!
You’ve undoubtedly heard stories of the glitz and glam of Dubai. This is after all the home of the world’s biggest skyscrapers, including the tallest building in the world, the famous Burj Khalifa.
While you can’t readily buy alcohol at stores, you can certainly find it in bars and resorts here and there is a healthy nightlife scene made up of expats and travelers. Many expats who work in Abu Dhabi choose to live in Dubai because there is generally more happening and public transportation is more robust, but that also comes with a higher price tag for those hoping to stay here.
I stayed at a hostel called At the Top. I was really excited about it as it was on the 66th floor of a building and got great reviews online, but I found the vibe here to be generally pretty strange—remind me to tell you about the time my roommate here was a Russian prostitute—but at the end of the day, it was $20/night including breakfast and I went for it.
Here are some of Dubai’s greatest sights:
- Burj Khalifa: The world’s tallest building is the top attraction here. Though it’s over 150 stories tall, your ticket to the top will take you to the 125th On a clear day, you can see a vast amount of the city from up here, though Dubai is pretty commonly smoggy and sometimes foggy, so check the weather before venturing up!
- Dubai Mall: Malls are the big thing here—the entrance to Burj Khalifa is in the Dubai Mall, which is impressive in and of itself. You can also check out the Mall of the Emirates, where you’ll find the world’s first indoor ski resort.
- Dubai Magical Gardens: If you’re looking for a synthetic acid trip, make sure to check out the weird land that is the Dubai Magical Gardens. The place is Alice in Wonderland themed and covered in flowers and there are all sorts of weird attractions to feast your eyes on. The park opens at 9 a.m. and you should get here early to avoid the heat as there isn’t much shade. When it gets to be too much, head to the beach. Entrance is 40 Dirham.
- Jumeirah Beach: The lively neighborhood of Jumeirah is home to several luxury hotel chains. Most notably off the palm is the Sofitel, with its famous infinity pool overlooking the warm turquoise beach of Jumeirah. If you’re not up for the higher price tag involved with staying here, visit the public beach. A sunbed will set you back $110 dirham and comes with a towel and umbrella, but if you bring your own you can bake in the sun for free.
There are plenty of options here for both day and night activities, but what you won’t find much of is culture. Dubai is an impressively man-made city, great for a few nights when you’re jetlagged and looking to stay up.
Our Favorite Hotels in Dubai
- XVA Art Hotel: Escape the sometimes overwhelming bling of Dubai in this modern hotel that feels very old-world Arabia. Check our friend Ann’s review on Forbes and then book your stay! Rates run around $150/night.
- Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumierah Beach: If budget isn’t a concern, do yourself a favor and snag a room at the Four Seasons, where you’ll have literally nothing to worry about except relaxing in luxury or snagging a spot on the beach or in their incredible infinity pool. Love! Rates run at $630/night
- Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach: Get the celebrity treatment at the Sofitel on Jumeirah Beach. Their breakfast buffet is spectacular, set right across from their infinity pool that looks right onto the gorgeous turquoise ocean. Beach access is public and right in front of the hotel. $294/night.
So, Dubai, or Abu Dhabi?
I spent three nights in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi and I was glad to have experienced both, though I did feel like I wished I had more quiet time in Abu Dhabi. Ultimately it comes down to what you’re looking for in a place—action, or quiet?
Remember that while it’s easy to get between the two cities, having to go three hours (1.5 hours each way) does wear you out. I learned this the hard way, staying in Dubai but booking activities in Abu Dhabi and having to go in and back out.
Which would you prefer?